2015 Kansas Excellence in Math and Science Teaching Conference

2015 Kansas Excellence in Math and Science Teaching Conference
June 22-24, 2015

Hutchinson Community College
1300 North Plum, Hutchinson
Stringer Fine Arts Center

Get ready for three mind-blowing days as this year’s Excellence in Math and Science Teaching Conference takes on a whole new format!  The best math and science teachers in the state will come together to dig into the standards, refresh and retool current practices and ultimately become leaders for change in the classroom.

Dedicated content area experts will work with attendees to address instructional and content shifts reported as being most challenging. Bring your team or just yourself. Either way, you will walk away with your plan to move instruction to the next level this coming fall.

During these three days of intense professional learning, you will:

Network with some of the best math and science teachers in Kansas;

Acquire ideas and tools from Kansas math and science education researchers;

Dig deep into the standards with strategies to move your classroom, building, and district closer to your vision for math and science education;

Take your teaching to the next level.

Go to http://events.ksde.org/Default.aspx?tabid=823 for more info.


An Activity to Introduce Critical Thinking for Throwback Thursday

This is a write-up I did for a presentation back in the early 90’s.  I was sharing this activity that I did for several years with some KABT folks this evening and  I was sure they would find it on the KABT site but I can’t find it.  So, here it is.  I think it speaks for itself….and it is a lot of fun, if you can keep your poker-face.

Science teachers are working hard to respond to our needs for a scientifically literate citizenry. It could be just the crowd I hang around, perhaps it’s just our increased ability to communicate or it could be my occupational bias but I am certain that more science teachers provide more effective laboratory experiences more often than in the past. Without addressing the limitation of standardized testing, why do we (the U.S.) fair so poorly when compared to other countries achievement in science education?

I do not wish to provide an extensive analysis here, it’s neither the time nor the place but I would propose that a fundamental problem exits today that must be countered before the goal of “science for all Americans” can be attained. That problem is our society’s propensity for the acceptance of the weird and supernatural as viable models of the natural world. For want of a better way of describing this problem I am referring to it as a lack of critical thinking skills. The following activity brings home to you and your students an important message–the importance of skepticism when encountering and explaining weird phenomena.

Background InformationThis activity is based on an experience that I had at an NSF funded teacher enhancement project at Benedictine College in the 1980’s. Jim Teller, a teacher from Iowa, and I essentially conned the rest of the participants into believing that I had some sort of paranormal talents. Of course, I didn’t have any such abilities but I was struck by how easy it was to fool almost all of the other teachers into believing that I did. I am convinced that we all received a valuable lesson from Jim, one that you can share with your students.

This type of activity is difficult to standardize so that it works everywhere. I’ll simply provide a narrative of what I did with my classes this year. Hopefully, you’ll have enough detail so that you can repeat the experience for your students if you wish. Also, I hope that the broad concepts of what is involved will be clear enough that you can design your own experience.

Every year, at the beginning of the school year, something in the media really disturbs me. It might be a report on “crop circles” or a discussion of Nancy Reagan’s reliance of astrological consultation for scheduling former President Reagan’s social calendar. This year, it was the prevalence of network shows that are based on the presumption of alien life forms here on this planet or the ability to “profile” a murder. I wait until something that reeks of paranormal or pseudoscience occurs in the media. Unfortunately, you can count on the near ubiquity of this kind of material in the media. In response, without student foreknowledge, I arrange a paranormal experience in our classroom that fits seamlessly with whatever topic that we are covering.

The gist of the experience is to set up a situation in which the students discover that one of their classmates has ESP. I’ve pre-selected this student as an accomplice–no one is suspicious. The discovery is by accident. Once the claim is made then a series of tests or experiments are performed. I set the parameters for the first set of tests, all the while being openly skeptical. Students have input by modifying the experiment within the parameters. The students want to believe in ESP so badly that they will usually not suspect that the ESP student and I are working together. Basically, I provide various clues to the ESP student about the solution to various experiments. The ESP student “proves” they have special abilities. This year my students were either particularly gullible or we are getting pretty good at pulling off a con since most of the classes were so convinced that they wanted exploit the ESP student for money. One of my students said to me with his mom present, “Mr. Williamson, what you did in Biology today was absolutely horrible!” His mom naturally was interested at this point. He then went on to say, “Today was the best science class he had ever had!” Hopefully, at least one student is skeptical enough to figure out that I am part of the trick but if they don’t, we let them in on it towards the end of the hour. After this experience I have little trouble convincing them of importance of critical thinking.

Specific details of the “con”

  1. I selected a student accomplice at the beginning of each hour making sure to not draw any special attention to what I am doing. I select carefully. You need someone who can think on their feet but that no one will suspect. I tell them that today they are going to have ESP. Their interest is peaked at this point.
  2. I inform the student accomplice that sometime during class discussion the topic will get around to ESP and when it does be sure to volunteer.

It is important that this discussion seem to be spontaneous and unplanned. Bring the students into the discussion. Eventually what I actually do is that I ask for a show of hands for those who think that they have experienced some kind of ESP-type of event. Several, including the accomplice always volunteer.

  1. The student accomplice and I quickly agree upon a set of signals before class. Since I set the parameters for the test, this is easy. I tell the accomplice that six objects will be on a table and one will be selected while he/she is out of the room. When they return they will “know” which object is selected because I’ll tell them. I tell them that I’ll be holding a clipboard for taking data on the experiment. They should visualize the clipboard as the table holding the six objects. Where I am holding my hand on the clipboard will indicate the location of the chosen object on the table. That’s all there is to it. However, since any good con has to have a back up we also establish a set of clues in case something goes wrong. One set of clues is the manner that I call them back into the room. For instance, if I say “Ready, now” then that means that something has gone wrong. They are to feign difficulty and say that something is not right this time. Another set of backup clues is my own position around another table in the room or my position in the room. There are lots of ways of doing this once you have an accomplice. Be creative and make sure that you have signals for when things aren’t quite right.

During class discussion when the students volunteer that they have suspect they have some form of ESP I suggest that we take six random objects and place them on a table. I carefully arrange the objects on the table. The suspected ESP students leave the room. A students volunteer selects one of the objects. This is done so that all of us remaining in the classroom know which is the selected object. The students come back into the classroom. The class is asked to concentrate on the object that was selected but don’t give any clues. Each of the returning students takes a guess at which object was selected. There’s a one out of six chance the correct object will be selected by any one student so we have to repeat the experiment several times. I inform the class of the odds at each trial. Naturally, usually after a couple of trials only the accomplice is correctly “detecting” the object selected. At this point I let the students in the room select 2 objects at once or none. When the accomplice returns I signal that something is changed and they can usually read any new signal that I make. It’s important that when the accomplice returns to the room that you (the teacher) is talking so that the accomplice has a legitimate reason for looking in your direction.

Within a short time nearly the entire class will be convinced that this person has ESP. Hopefully there will be a few that are skeptical and will want to try other forms of tests. Ask why, use this skepticism as a starting point for experimental design. Let them find you out–if possible. If not, be sure to expose the charade with enough time to discuss the purpose. This activity is not designed to make fools or teach con games. It’s purpose is to let students know how easy to accept rather outlandish claims.

To complete the lesson, the next day I show the NOVA video, “The Power of Psychics.” This video features the “Amazing Randi” debunking various psychic phenomena. Try it you’ll be “amazed”.



In My Classroom – #6 (Getting Students Interested in Science)

Welcome to the KABT new blog segment, “In My Classroom”. This is a segment that will post about every two weeks from a different member. In 250 words or less, share one thing that you are currently doing in your classroom. That’s it.

The idea is that we all do cool stuff in our rooms, and to some people there have been cool things so long that it feels like they are old news. In this segment, if you are tagged all you need to do is share something you’ve done in your classroom in the last two weeks. It must be recent, but that’s it. If you are tagged, you’ve got two weeks to post your entry. Who knows… your supposedly mundane idea, lesson, or lab might be exactly what someone else really needs. Keep it brief, keep it honest about the time window, and share it out! Here we go:  

This year I’ve been on a mission to get students interested in science. On the first day of school, I asked my students to draw a picture of what they think a scientist looks like. As you can probably guess, their pictures were predictable and full of stereotypes. Sometimes they were holding a beaker containing a mysterious bubbling liquid, other times they were next to a microscope. But every drawing was of an older white male in a lab coat. Why would my diverse students be into science if they saw it as something for old white dudes? My students obviously did not know many scientists, so I decided to change that.2

I reached out to about a dozen biology graduate students at KU and asked if they would be interested in partnering with me for a semester-long project. Our goal is to design and plant a pollinator garden in one of the courtyards at Wyandotte High School. The grad students have been coming to my class every other Friday to work with my students on the garden project. Their lessons have covered a range of topics from Colony Collapse Disorder, to ways of measuring biodiversity. My students have researched native plants that attract pollinators and have made scale drawings 4of what they think the garden should look like. We’ve picked a winning design and plan to begin planting the garden early May. Once the garden is established, we plan on creating a database to continually monitor pollinator population data.3

Overall the experience has been extremely positive. I’ve seen a significant increase in the number of students interested in science careers. My students have taken real ownership of the project, are excited to continue their work, and have formed meaningful relationships with the grad students.1

Send some emails. Invite scientists into your classrooms. Help your students dispel stereotypes associated with science and get them involved in projects where they can apply real science skills.

Cat Genetics Mini Unit

This year I have tried a mini project-based unit that uses cats to teach genetics. I got the idea for this and some resources from an article written by Alan Christensen, a professor at the University of Nebraska. I started out by running through my normal unit on genetics to serve as a background on genetics vocabulary as well as skills to do Punnett Squares. Next, I had them go into the specifics of cat genetics. Cat genetics are well known due to years of artificial selection. Also, more recently their genome was sequenced and many of the genes that determine hair patterning has been investigated.  This entire mini unit was focused on the genetics of cats coat colors.

Day 1.

Students were introduced to cats and their genome. I went through a prezi to cover all eighteen autosomes of the cats and highlighted the specific loci where the genes that determined their coat color were located. I covered these observable genes and discussed their forms of inheritance. Then we talked about the Orange gene on the X chromosome. They then were given the chance to look at several cats from a local human shelter and score them for different genes.

Student Scoring A cat from a local shelter for its genetic traits
Student Scoring A cat from a local shelter for its genetic traits

At the end of class, they were given a chance to look up a specific gene from the NCBI genome of cats and try to determine what these genes does for the cell. (I would like to enrich this part of the unit but I don’t know how.) Their homework was to take a photo of their cat and bring it to school the next day on their phone or in an email.

Day 2. Students diagramed their cat based on a photo and posted this along with an analysis of the cat’s genome all around my room.

Student using a photo from their phone to diagram a cat. In the future these could be posted to a blog and other students could contribute to the genotyping of each cat.
Student using a photo from their phone to diagram a cat. In the future these could be posted to a blog and other students could contribute to the genotyping of each cat.


With a simple “cat scan” around the room I began to see some cool trends. For instance, that the dominant White gene was rare in our local population. This turned into a good discussion about why the dominant gene didn’t “dominant” all other genes. posting cats

After all of our gene pool was posted, I was able to use some manipulatives from my time judging of protein modeling to show how the mutations from different genes can cause changes in color. It was very helpful to have a three dimensional model of a “receptor” protein. I began to ask the question about how one gene such as white or orange could cause a change in color.

I'm trying to make Lin Andrews proud her by using some models. I attached them to my board with some magnets. It was so cool looking!
I’m trying to make Lin Andrews proud here by using some models. I attached them to my board with some magnets. It was so cool looking!

I used an explanation from Hopi Hoekstra from the University of Harvard about how fur color can cause a change in color. If the shape of the receptor protein is altered then the function of that protein will change, and in-turn its phenotype will change. Finally, the students read an article about Kermodism in black bears from British Columbia and answered questions about this article.  Here is a copy of the article for you to print (Spirit Bear). Kermodism is caused by the same Melanocortin 1 Receptor that I diagramed on the board.


The students drew a picture of their ideal “purrfect” cat. It had to have realistic traits and it couldn’t be hairless or all white. Students were able to take their “purrfect” cat diagrams and set up a breeding program to select from other student’s cats. They imagined that every time two cats bred they would produce eight kittens. I realized that some students were intentionally picking easier cats to breed for. So, I created several imaginary clients who wanted very specific traits for their cats. Each cat that they determined a breeding program for was an additional chocolate bar. Since all of the diagrams were in the classroom I could not ask the student’s to do any homework. In the future it would be neat to take all the pictures and post them to a blog so students could do homework as well as argue over the genes that different cats have.

Day 4.

We then concluded the unit with a section on natural selection with a video by HHMI on how mice in the desert have different levels of survival. The mice adapt due to a mutation in their Melanocortin 1 Receptor which is something that the students had heard about in previous lessons. I asked the students to select one single trait from our classes’ cat gene pool. For instance, we only had 5 out of 63 posted cats that were all white. I asked them to write out the percentage of their specific trait. Next, they described a realistic scenario where the environment selected for or against this trait. Several students imagined that there was a second ice age. I got as Socratic as I could with them and made students write out WHY the trait would be selected if an ice age came. Finally, they had to write in what they thought the final percentages of the population would be over time. Thus, I lead them through Variation, Selection, and Adaptation. This will help us lead into our next unit of evolution. One of my students lamented that they had their kitten eaten by a hawk earlier this spring. Another mentioned after class that if I needed a cat skin their family had about 30 cats in their barn… I laughed pretty hard until I realized he was serious. You’ve gotta love it when students start connecting genetics to their little small town.

I have just completed the mini unit and I have some mixed feelings as I process and reflect back on it. I think it was a good experience for the students. They were highly engaged in the process (58 out of 63 completed the task of determining the genes of their own cat instead of going online.) and I was glad to see that. The gaping hole in this project is that it needs more authentic artifact or product that the students produce so I can assess their understanding. The most fun part of the process was the number of cat jokes that I was able to work into each lesson. For that alone, it was worth undertaking. Let me know what you think and clue me into any ideas you may have.

Learning & Knowing – PD Opportunity

I’m pretty excited to offer an opportunity to attend a meeting to look at brain research and how it can/should impact a classroom. All are welcome and it’s free, but space is limited so shoot me an email if you’d like a spot. mralphoe[at]olatheschools[dot]org

Workshop Flier

Knowing and learning are not the same thing. Brain research has demonstrated repeatedly that the process of learning is distinct from what it means to know a concept. The traditional view of education focuses on learning processes but often neglects the skills required to know a topic afterwards. This has inexorably led to a linear view of curriculum, with teachers marching through content and providing carrots and sticks to elicit compliant students within their daily activities.

Join a workshop that offers a change in that paradigm. Learn what current research on brain physiology says about the best way to come to know something in the classroom. Discuss with other colleagues and current high school students alike what the impact of this cognitive research should be in a classroom. Be an active participant in a new kind of classroom that eliminates the trappings of the old paradigm.

Experience what it’s like to trash your notes following a lecture. Hear from students who create their own homework assignments and complete them without ever using the word “point” or “credit”. See how a fundamental shift in the approach to learning and knowing leads to 4 graded tasks a semester (FOUR!). Observe how a focus on building competency leads to natural differentiation of instruction.

Steve Young, the Anatomy and Physiology teacher at Olathe East High School, will be facilitating a free workshop to explore a new way to think about education. Bring nothing but a willingness to consider new ideas. All you have to lose is the old way of thinking.

Session Details:

Room 105, 14545 W. 127th St. Olathe KS, 66062

April 18th from 8:30a-1:00p


Electrophoresis is Hard

I know many upper-level biology classes perform some version of the classic (are they old enough to be classic yet?) biotechnology procedures at some point in the year. Bacterial transformation, PCR, and DNA electrophoresis are all experiments that occur in many labs at high schools and universities. I say occur but what I mean is attempt. At least in my classroom the success rate for these procedures is… let’s say <100%.

Par for the course...
Par for the course…

Practice makes improvement but in this setting practice is also really expensive. To solve this problem my predecessor (the venerable Paula Donham to cite her properly) allowed students to practice some procedures on dummy supplies first before using actual reagents and equipment. This is particularly useful in electrophoresis procedures. Micropipetting is difficult to novices and errors can ‘break’ the experiment with discouraging frequency. This is a particular problem in experiments that are culminating in the electrophoresis step after substantial investment, such as the arabidopsis epigenetics lab that I’ve raved about before.

A practice gel can be cast in a Petri dish with the much cheaper agar (as opposed to agarose) and water. Mix a 1% agar solution with tap water and boil to dissolve. Pour molten agar into Petri dishes to a depth of about 5mm. While it is still molten add a comb that creates several rows of wells similar to those in an electrophoresis gel. After the agar solidifies fill the dish with water. Use glycerol with food coloring to practice filling the wells with no harm from gel punctures, spills or other experimenter errors.

In the current model, the comb teeth are slightly more widely spaced.
In the current model, the comb teeth are slightly more widely spaced.
3D printed in red, store bought in white
3D printed in red, store bought in white

Usually you could buy equipment or kits (like here) but there is a DIY option. You can mix your own reagents as I’ve described above and you can 3D print your own comb. Download the STL file here and get your nearest 3D printer to create you an army of combs. Now every student can practice melting, pouring, comb-removing, and loading. This time your students can make much more interesting mistakes than simply misloading their wells.

Capture Capture 1


In My Classroom – #5 (Public Interactions/Real World Experiences for Students)

Welcome to the KABT new blog segment, “In My Classroom”. This is a segment that will post about every two weeks from a different member. In 250 words or less, share one thing that you are currently doing in your classroom. That’s it.

The idea is that we all do cool stuff in our rooms, and to some people there have been cool things so long that it feels like they are old news. In this segment, if you are tagged all you need to do is share something you’ve done in your classroom in the last two weeks. It must be recent, but that’s it. If you are tagged, you’ve got two weeks to post your entry. Who knows… your supposedly mundane idea, lesson, or lab might be exactly what someone else really needs. Keep it brief, keep it honest about the time window, and share it out! Here we go:

20150326_090006This year, I have completely changed how I teach.  An absolute turn-around.

The course that I teach is Veterinary Medicine.  It is taken by high  school juniors and seniors.  Many of my students know they want to pursue a veterinary or vet tech path.  Other students are taking my course to see what is out there; they love animals but are not sure how to weave that love into a future career.   The challenge going into the school year was how to provide meaningful experiences for the students which are rich in content and exploration (I am not a veterinarian).

My approach follows the model which my school uses – community interactions.  Depending on the course you teach, you may not be able to incorporate this model to the full extent, but I believe each classroom could implement a little community interaction for a win-win.  With all of our community interactions, I tweet pictures and quips about our experiences.  This gets the word out about our business partners AND gives us community exposure!

  1. Guest speakers20141203_144128(0)This is the easiest to implement since it does not require buses, permission slips and budget. I used to be afraid? embarrassed? to call someone up to ask them to come speak to my class, feeling like it would be an imposition.  Not anymore!  I have 20140919_140703found folks are very supportive of education; professionals love sharing their passion with students!  I have had veterinarians, vet techs, ranchers, former students who are pre-vet, and even a speaker representing the beef industry.
  2. No farther than your own backyard – Of course your school grounds could be a utopia for teaching, but have you looked at the people there? The nurses in my building have been invaluable a teaching my students skills (intramuscular injections, venipuncture, catheterization).  Have you have talked to your School Resource Officer about speaking to your class?  He/she could lend a wonderful application of biotechnology via crime scene evidence during your unit on DNA.
  3. Not-for-profits as a resource20150114_090433Charitable organizations love to get their message out! Many of them have educational programs already in place. For your class, consider a local food bank during a unit on nutrition or digestion.  What about a visit from a cancer philanthropy during your cell unit or a conservation group during your environmental unit?  The possibilities are endless!  This quarter, my students spend Thursdays at a local horse rescue (http://horsesave.com/).  Students are getting HANDS-ON experience working with horses, lending a hand to the owner. We learned shelter medicine AT the animal shelter (http://www.waysidewaifs.org) and continue to go their regularly.
  4. Businesses (small, big and everything in between!)20140829_143731 Look into businesses that sell services or products which have an application to your class. For example, I have had a dog trainer come to my class.  We had “BYOD day (bring your own dog)” and had a training session on school grounds.  Another example?  I have built relationships with two large veterinary pharmaceutical companies in my area.  One offers us guest speakers.  The students love asking questions about how they got where they are.  The other company designed a project for my students to work on.  Real world experiences!!
  5. Site visits20150311_090321Transportation (and thus budget) is an issue to taking the students on site visits. All of my students & parents have signed a blanket field trip form allowing them to drive themselves, carpool, or take school transportation.  This has greatly simplified the possibility of seeing what professionals do where they do it!  We have gone to private farms, a dairy, various sizes of cattle ranches, the Zoo and a slaughter/processing facility (wow – we saw the lymph nodes which are an important part of the meat inspection process!).  Where could you go to punctuate what you are learning in the classroom?
  6. Professional societies20140927_112429Something that you teach will a professional society associated with it.  Contact them.  See if there are speakers, conferences or field trips your students could attend.  You are spreading the word about what they do to a potential market (your students).  For example, for years my colleague Eric Kessler has been taking students on the Kansas Herpetological Society field trips (http://www.cnah.org/khs/).  Students walk fields WITH herpetologists, learning from them as they go!

I feel that we have the ultimate flipped classroom using this model!  We are out of the classroom 3-4 days a week.  We SEE/DO the concepts in real-world settings, the return to the classroom to apply and process what we have learned.  As we have these experiences, student vocabulary and knowledge increases at a rate faster than if we would have presented the material in the classroom.

Students keep a lab notebook where they document and diagram what they learn.  I have skills practicals where they are warranted.  Students practice writing gracious and meaningful thank you notes following our interactions.

I challenge you to add just ONE community interaction this semester!

Now a question for you:  how else would you hold students accountable for their learning?  Do you have other ideas for me from “in YOUR classroom” regarding accountablity in this setting?

In My Classroom – #4 (Can We Have An Argument, Please (2))

Thank you, Camden, for the “Tag.  You’re it!”  I am attempting to kill two birds with one stone with this post.  This is part 4 in the “In My Classroom” series and a continuation of my thoughts of using argumentation in the classroom.

If you remember, I outlined the argumentation process on Feb. 6th (see previous post).  This post will describe my first experience with it in the classroom.  I also need to give credit to my fall semester student teacher, Chelsey Wineinger, for the design and implementation of this lesson.  We had just returned from KABT’s 2014 Fall Conference after an opportunity to listen to Dr. Marshall Sundberg discuss teaching strategies from his book, “Inquiring About Plants: A Practical Guide to Engaging Science Practices.”  Armed with this inspiration and the “Plants and Energy” Activity (pg 219) from “Scientific Argumentation in Biology” (SAIB) by Sampson & Schleigh, we began our argumentation adventure.

One of the most important decisions that need to be made when implementing argumentation in your own classroom is timing.  The idea is to provide just enough background information so that students can move forward with their investigations, yet still be challenged.  For this lab, it is important that students understand that plants use carbon dioxide to create sugars and animals use oxygen to break them down.

Now the question:  Do plants use oxygen to convert the sugar (which they produce using photosynthesis) into energy and release carbon dioxide as a waste product as animals do? (SAIB)

All groups of my students (3-4 per group) will use this question to drive their investigation.  It will appear at the top of their whiteboard using the format shown below:

In this lesson, students were given three different claims to chose from.  Depending on your students abilities, you can provide more claims, fewer claims, or no claims at all.  Here are the claims (SAIB):

  • Claim #1:  Plants do not use oxygen as we do. Plants only take in carbon dioxide and give off oxygen as a waste product because of photosynthesis. This process produces all of the energy a plant needs, so they do not need oxygen at all.
  • Claim #2: Plants take in carbon dioxide during photosynthesis in order to make sugar, but they also use oxygen to convert the sugar into energy. As a result, plants release carbon dioxide as a waste product all the time just as animals do.
  • Claim #3:  Plants release carbon dioxide all the time because they are always using oxygen to convert sugar to energy just as animals do. Plants, however, also take in carbon dioxide and release oxygen when exposed to light.

Students, after having a discussion within their group will decide on a claim and add it to their whiteboard.  Now the materials which are your classic “snail-elodea lab” materials:

  • Vials with lids that will seal tightly
  • Bromothymol blue indicator
  • pond or aquarium water
  • pond snails
  • pieces of Elodea

All groups will have access to these same materials and it is important to discuss any questions that students may have including the properties of Bromothymol  blue.  Now students begin to design their own investigations attempting to support their claim.  I’ve had students ask if they could also gather evidence to disprove the other claims while still supporting their own… The answer?   “Absolutely!”  It is important to step back at this point and let the students do the designing.  This can be really difficult because as teachers we really want our students to have the “right” answers.  Remember its not so much about the “right” answer here as it is the process.  If you can see this process through to the end, I think most students will find the “right” answers.  I tried to just move around the classroom and ask a clarifying question or two of each group and making sure everyone is participating and engaged.  You could have students turn in their procedures at this point if you would like to have something to grade.

Now they gather materials and run their investigation.  It is important for this particular lab to have plenty of materials.  I had a few groups use as many as 8 vials.  If you think about it or are familiar with the lab, this number of vials will support most claims.  The other material that can be difficult is the amount of snails necessary for the students needs.  I typically put things off until last minute.  My great thought was to take my own children out to the stream behind the house and catch a whole bunch of snails, but we had a cold snap a few days before the lab, so that plan fell through.  The day before the lab, I hit all the area pet stores.  If you find the right person, pet stores will usually just give you what they call their aquatic pest snails that will build up in number in their aquariums if not controlled.  I was able to get enough, but was mildly stressed out as it was the day before the lab.  (I used to have a wrestling coach that talked about the “7 P’s”… “Proper Prior Planning Prevents Piss-Poor Performance.”  This typically comes to mind when I am scrambling to put together a lab!)

Once the investigation is completed, students are ready to gather data and analyze it for the evidence portion of their whiteboard.  They should remember they are picking pieces of evidence to support their claim.  This does not mean they can just throw away evidence that does not support it.  Can the claim be changed or adjusted?  Absolutely!  Great opportunity for a discussion on how science really “works.”

The justification piece is something that I’m still working on.  The justification of the evidence is a statement that defends their choice of evidence by explaining why it is important and relevant by
identify the concepts underlying the evidence.  My issue is one that goes with your decision on timing for this lab.  If you go early, students may lack the background to adequately justify the evidence that they have chosen.  If you go later, they kind of already know the answer.  I’m still playing with this and will let you know how it goes.

OK.  This is a post about argumentation.  So when do they argue?  Their whiteboard, now full of information, is their argument.  The argumentation piece is a round-robin format where groups will leave behind an “expert” who will present and defend their argument while identifying gaps or holes that other groups bring to light through their questioning.  The rest of the group is traveling around the room visiting each whiteboard asking questions, not to point out what is wrong necessarily, but finding bits of information to bring back to their own whiteboard to make their argument stronger.  When groups reconvene they might need to reword different parts or use a difference piece of evidence and  in some cases they might need to tweak their experiment and run it again.  Once again, depends on how much time you have.

Student do not argue well.  If unchecked, they will happily listen to the “expert” and respond with a “Cool!” or Sounds good!” and then sit there waiting for me to tell them to move to the next “expert.”  You have to really move around the room and help them argue.  If a group goes all around the room and comes back to their own group for a discussion and have nothing to add, they have failed.  Likewise for the “expert.”  If they are so intent proving to every group how right they are and don’t really listen to the questions to find ways to improve, they have also failed.

If it is done well, there should be  lively group discussion following the argumentation piece and whiteboards should be adjusted.  Don’t worry.  The first time we tried this, there was a lot of sitting and looking at one another.  My students and I have gotten better with each argumentation lesson.  Right now, my students are working through an old lab of mine on species and diversity that I have converted to include an argumentation piece.  I will continue to update with how this process is going in my classroom this year.

I nominate Kelley Tuel as the next KABT member to tell us what is going on in her classroom!



In My Classroom – #3

Thanks to a little idea from Brad I thought I would try something with my AP Biology students this week that I saw him try with his BIO 100 students at KU earlier.

We’re currently marching our way through the mind-bending terror that is protein synthesis. So we’ve gone over the whole process a bit but to make sure we were not getting lost in the details I gave them this:

Blank central dogma 1Blank central dogma 2

Two different models of the same process. Nothing earth-shatteringly innovative but how I framed it and worked with it was unique to me. I didn’t just say it was a worksheet to complete. I framed it as 2 different models of the same process. If they wanted to use the picture in their book that was ok because the diagram in their Campbell book also looked different. What I was surprised with was how much students struggle translating [pun] knowledge across models. Students struggled with labeling processes versus structures, labeling the same structure that was differently drawn in two models, and especially when one model added or removed details (like introns and exons).

The other cool part was that afterwards when students shared their answers on the board, they had lengthy discussion about what was “right”. For example, two students argued whether the 4th answer from the top was “pre-mRNA” or “mRNA” and explained why they thought that. After looking to me I shared that by their explanations both could be right. That’s what I think was cool, students argued different answers where with the proper explanations, either could be right. So because of that, I would avoid giving an “word bank”.

Also, at the very end I created a list on the board titled “limitations” and I had them share what was limiting about these diagrams. Some thoughts were “no nucleotides were shown entering RNA polymerase”, “no other cell components were shown”, “the ribosome on top only had room for one tRNA”, “no mRNA cap or tail were shown”, and many more.

I found this exercise useful because I struggle giving students modeling opportunities (especially non-physical ones) and this was a simple way for students to get practice comparing/contrasting models while also discussing the usefulness and limitations of them.

Alright, for the 4th installment I nominate el presidente himself, Noah Busch.

*My* Biology Objectives

Unless you lucked into being one of my students, you have probably never laid eyes on my course objectives. But today, I am releasing them to the public in all their glory. My reason? Because I know they can be better and they’ve been mine too long for me to see them with fresh perspective. If you can use them, great. If you can improve them, even better. If you can’t use them, perfect, please tell me that too. With that being said, first let me get some a couple things out of the way.

First, acknowledgments. The template for the layout of these objectives comes from Cindy Gay. I loved her layout and simple way of organizing concepts. She is an incredible teacher and I don’t want any credit for the organization. Secondly, I’ll credit my high school for providing some objectives and College Board for providing some of the essential knowledge and big idea concepts. They also provided good scaffolding for me in putting these together.

I’ll also provide some context. These are the learning objectives for my freshman general biology class. For what it’s worth mentioning, I’m not sure how these would look “different” for an honors class. In some way that is a loaded statement to me that involves the discussion and analysis of what it means to be a “general” or “honors” students. That may be a post for another day (feel free to start the discussion). These are handed to students on the first day of a new “Big Idea” (the breakdown of how the document is laid out is below) and they use them throughout the rest of the unit. I put them on different colored paper and it’s in landscape, both of which are to emphasize the importance of this document.

Where did I get these objectives from? I got the big ideas and essential knowledge concepts from the College Board Standards for College Success (Life Science portion). These were written by College Board in 2009 as prerequisite knowledge before heading into AP. Now, is College Board a perfect source for content standards? No. But I do like as an AP Biology teacher that I can hold students to standards that can align with AP Biology so that my students can have a good foundational understanding while also being prepared for higher level science classes. It’s also nice for me to use similar terminology with both my freshman and AP classes, such as objective, big idea, essential knowledge, etc.

So finally, before I unveil these statements I want to set up some ground rules and requests:

  • These are not meant to be consumed without purposeful thought. I adapted, revised, and chose these standards as they fit myself as a teacher and my students as learners. I would assume the same would need to be done on your part.
  • These have no inherit order. They are ordered in the general trajectory I use in my class BUT I am not tied to that order, nor have I successfully created a conceptual flow graphic (again, another topic for another day; ask me about it if you would like) for these units like I have with some of my AP Biology units. Have an idea on moving concepts around? Let me know!
  • Speaking of letting me know, I would LOVE your feedback on the objectives. You know what? I would love feedback so much I’ve created a 3 question survey that you can add your feedback to that will go straight to me. Thanks in advance!

With that all out of the way, here is how you view/digest the objectives.

Standards KEY


A side note: if you are familiar with the AP Biology Redesign then some of this terminology may be familiar to you.

  • There are 5 Big Ideas in *my* biology class: Ecology, Energy & Matter, Cells, Genetics, and Evolution. They are ordered based of their order in my year, I will say I’m not married to they way I teach it now, I’m personally partial to the order of AP Biology, which starts with Evolution. Another discussion point, I’m sure.
  • The Forever Understanding is the the major concepts that students will understand by the end of the unit. I generally have them read these before we start and then after the unit they will reread them and try to go back through their objectives sheet and find “evidence” of where they learned these concepts (sort of like a Claims-Evidence-Reasoning and Concept Map hybrid).
  • The Essential Knowledge portion is a sub-concept that stands on its own. Basically, I consider these to be the bite-size concepts that a student could learn in 1-2 days (depending of course on the lesson itself)
  • The Topic is just an organizing tool created by College Board that I liked and kept.
  • Text Ref refers to the “textbook reference”. It’s where I put the chapter or section information. On my digital version for students I’ve linked electronically to supplemental resources or to their online textbook.
  • The Learning Objective is probably the statement of most importance to the student because it is actually the way I want students to be able to apply their essential knowledge. It is supposed to be written in “student-friendly” language with highlighted performance/action verbs. These were chosen purposefully and are not throw away statements.
  • The Unpack section is where students make sense of the objective in their own words. I should emphasize it is NOT a note-taking section. It is for synthesis, not note-taking. That minor point is still an area of issue with my students.
  • The Self-Score box is where students rank their understanding from 1 (little understanding) to 4 (mastery). Generally I tell students 2 = I can get full understanding with help and 3 = full understanding. Mastery level is where students not only can explain it but they can also apply it too.

I believe that, my friends, is all I have to say. Please, I provide these here for the community’s use but if any of you do use them and you have something to add (Maybe you improve them or maybe they’re awful and you can explain why) I would love to hear it. Enjoy!




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